Hard to imagine now, but it was only a fortnight ago that Boris Johnson set today as the date when the nation should scrap the previous exhortation to ‘work from home’, and, where possible, get back to the office.
So this week should have been the crucial point at which our national recovery began, when we slipped the shackles of Covid-19 and started to rebuild the economy.
Instead, everything I’ve heard or read since last week – and particularly over the weekend – suggests the very opposite.
Indeed, the incoherent messaging seems almost eerily designed to foster anew a pervasive sense of panic, fuelling fears that we are heading towards wide-scale partial lockdowns – or even back to a total national lockdown.
The most sensible single measure the PM could take today would be to ban his Cabinet and Downing Street advisers from using the term ‘second wave’
Thursday’s announcement of new restrictions in Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and East Lancashire followed by Friday’s U-turn on lifting restrictions on bowling alleys, skating rinks, wedding receptions and some beauty salon procedures, followed loose talk of a ‘second wave’ of the coronavirus.
Together they have created exactly the wrong atmosphere at a time when a sense of national renewal is desperately needed to get people off their sofas and into their workplaces. Most alarming of all, it is reported the Prime Minister and his Cabinet have been ‘war-gaming’ anti-Covid ‘nuclear options’ such as a re-imposition of a full quarantine regime for air passengers, draconian restrictions on London travel and even confining millions of the over-50s to their homes.
This is despite the fact that the chances of an otherwise healthy 50-year-old suffering serious health consequences from infection are statistically very small. And that if you remove people over 50 from the workplace, either by order or by fear, you are effectively decapitating the workforce and condemning all of us to permanent economic impoverishment.
Panic at this stage is not just foolish, but unnecessary. By most measures, things are going well. Hospital admissions for those with Covid-19 complications are flat, and so is the mortality rate. And far from being overwhelmed, the NHS is operating at only about 50 per cent capacity overall.
The most sensible single measure the PM could take today would be to ban his Cabinet and Downing Street advisers from using the term ‘second wave’.
It is a dangerous phrase because it deters people from even thinking about a return to normal working – which is the only way the economy can recover.
It is also inaccurate: we are not witnessing a second wave or even the beginnings of one. We are seeing geographically separated, localised spikes. We also know why they are happening, and to whom. These postcode blips are overwhelmingly in communities where strong family values mean households are large, and often comprise three, or sometimes four, generations with all the attendant comings and goings.
On the margins, there are other factors, including possibly a greater genetic susceptibility to the virus and a higher than average prevalence of conditions such as diabetes (a risk factor for Covid-19) in these communities.
These spikes can be flattened by targeted measures, and the model for this is Leicester where rates began to decline rapidly after rigorous action was taken locally with full co-operation by all.
We do know how to tackle coronavirus and we should have some confidence in our ability, yet national morale is once again plumbing the depths.
Thursday’s announcement of new restrictions in Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and East Lancashire followed by Friday’s U-turn on lifting restrictions on bowling alleys, skating rinks, wedding receptions and some beauty salon procedures, followed loose talk of a ‘second wave’ of the coronavirus
For that I blame parts of the media – and particularly the BBC – for giving too much prominence to epidemiologists of a rather pessimistic stripe. This science tracks epidemics and models worst-case scenarios. The danger is it leaves out other considerations, such as the long-term economic consequences of mitigation efforts.
Only the PM can really take rounded decisions about what level of risk is tolerable for the overall good of society.
My area of expertise is cancer and in a normal year 360,000 cases are diagnosed in the UK. Due to the collapse of the NHS diagnostic network during the pandemic, and the fact that many people have been reluctant to visit GPs, we are running at roughly half that rate of diagnoses this summer.
As a result, tens of thousands of people who might have survived their cancers with early diagnosis may die. I don’t wish to depress or alarm anyone, but we cannot ignore that there are grave consequences to the excessive countermeasures being taken to control a virus which is statistically unlikely to kill anyone except the very old, and those at greater risk because of a pre-existing condition.
And it is particularly stupid when a senior Government scientific adviser sees fit – as Professor Graham Medley did – to suggest that if schools are to reopen next month, then we might have to shut down pubs again in a ‘trade off’. The two options are not related, and to attach a false connection is to spread alarm and confusion. It would be disastrous if hard-liners in the teaching unions were given yet more ammunition in their efforts to frustrate a return to school, which is essential not just for education’s sake, but our children’s mental well-being.
Mr Johnson has had a bad seven days in his Covid-19 war. The nation cannot afford any further signs of a lack of grip or nerve.
- Karol Sikora is professor of medicine at University of Buckingham Medical School and Chief Medical Officer at Rutherford Health.